Once a style reserved for a subculture whose mantra was to reject the mainstream, streetwear has become a multi-faceted phenomenon that now dominates the fashion industry. Today, every major player in the fashion game has cottoned on to the cultural shift that has taken place in modern times.

As the desires of the market have moved on from luxury couture to ready-to-wear fashion, top designers have turned to the streets for a taste of realism and rebellion to inspire their creations.

In their search for the fountain of youth, they stumbled upon a goldmine.

All things considered, the romance between graffiti and high fashion was inevitable. From catwalk show direction to clothing design, high fashion has long turned to the art world for inspiration – after all what is fashion if not wearable art?

While one has historically sat at the heart of the mainstream, inspiring the trends seen in high street shop windows, the other was founded as a counterculture to deface those very windows. Modern graffiti states a message that challenges societal norms – the very norms that high fashion has historically promoted.

If collaborations between the two disciplines can be likened to a relationship, it’s a tale of star-crossed lovers on polar ends of the social class spectrum – a tale that has been building for some time.

Gritty and unconventional by nature, graffiti has its roots in the Roman Empire, where it was painted onto walls to poke fun at current events. But the romance between street art and fashion truly blossomed in the 1970s, its honeymoon phase in full swing during the punk movement that saw graffiti increasingly incorporated into design.

Anarchy In The UK

At a time when London was at the forefront of cultural trends, Vivienne Westwood and then-manager of the Sex Pistols Malcolm McLaren began using fashion as a platform to make political statements.

Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood

It was in their shop at 430 Kings Road that the pair contributed in creating the street culture of Punk: frayed t-shirts with controversial graphics, torn dresses held together by safety pins, highly-charged imagery and bondage trousers may not have been the wardrobe staples of the middle classes until punk became a fully-fledged trend in itself.

Naturally, this very concept sounds alarm bells in the minds of anyone who subscribes to punk as a movement and the message within the music. The same argument is the one that still boils today between the street-art counterculture and the high fashion designers who know what their customers want. The simple reality is that fashion will always look to youth culture to guide designs just as any business looks to consumer trends to guide their strategy.

Hip Hop

If punk was the middle-finger to the mainstream of the 1970s, hip hop is the unstoppable cultural force that has characterised the last decade. More than just a music genre, hip hop quickly evolved into a way of life in the urban areas of late 70s New York. Along with emceeing, DJing and B-Boying, graffiti was considered one of the four elements of hip hop in the early days of the movement; a law-defying form of artistic expression that has survived over five decades despite its criminality.

Just as the punk patriot would shudder at a triple-figure pricetag on a ripped tee-shirt, the politically-charged street artists of the early hip-hop movement may not approve of fashion designers mimicking their style. On the other hand, designers could argue that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and they would be right, as long as the artist receives what they’re due from the collaboration.

And just as punk eventually became trendy, soo too would the commercialisation of graffiti (and hip hop in general) see the gritty palettes and bold statements of street art become the inspiration of every designer keen to capitalise on the fast-growing subculture of urban life – minus the violence.

Meanwhile, graffiti itself evolved into a multi-faceted art-form. Beyond tags to identify gangs, street art became a discipline in itself, one celebrated by city-slickers not always as a statement, but as a means of bringing colour and character to otherwise dreary underpasses and carbon-copy high streets.

Street-inspired High Fashion or High Fashion Streetwear?

Fast forward to the 2000s and American fashion designer Marc Jacobs has partnered with Stephen Sprouse, an artist credited with pioneering the 1980s mix of “uptown sophistication in clothing with a downtown punk and pop sensibility” to create a twist on the Louis Vuitton monogram. The iconic graffiti logo bags they designed turned heads in the fashion industry and sparked welcome chatter across the press and the public.

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Just a few seasons later, Louis Vuitton had collaborated with well-known international street artists for a series of high-end scarves called “Foulards D’artistes.” And more recently, Vandal Eyes – a work by graffiti artist Rime – was used by Jeremy Scott on a Moschino dress worn by Katy Perry at the 2015 Met Ball.

When asked about the emergence of streetwear as a mainstream fashion trend, American designer, DJ and stylist Virgil Abloh compared it to Yves Saint Laurent in 1966, introducing ready-to-wear fashion that drew inspiration from the street as opposed to couture, which was for the elite.

“When you look at it in those terms, ‘streetwear’ is just a modern adaptation to describe the evolution,” he says.

Any art form is indicative of the culture, I think. The notable difference is today a more diverse group of actors is shaping that culture than in the past.
Virgil Abloh, CEO of Off-White

With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand the success of MICHAEL Michael Kors’ Grafitti capsule collection, launched in 2018. Created in-house, the logo graffiti is a celebration of both street art and the brand’s home city of New York, as well as a nod to today’s street-influenced fashion.

Michael Kors Regent St Store, courtesy of Michael Kors

“I started my company in 1981, at a time when uptown and downtown were really colliding,” says Michael Kors.

Uptown girls partied downtown at the Mudd Club and Club 57. Artists like Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat showed their work at PS1, and yet you’d still be just as likely to find their signatures on the side of a building in the LES or your subway car. Today, that mix of high/low is everything.
Michael Kors
Poutiq